Superhero films

superheroes-banner-495wInitially ‘Saturday Movie Serials’ – e.g. Batman (1943) and Captain America (1944) – were successful with young audiences, but fundamentally Superhero Movies went into decline in the 1950s and 1960s, and did not pick up until much later. Occasional films like Batman (1966) with Adam West, borrowing from the success of the TV series, and Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968) were exceptions, offering limited interest at the cinema.

With this in mind, it was not until Superman (in 1978) that the genre took off with the film scoring a critical and commercial. This is why when we talk about historical examples of the genre it is difficult to cite examples before 1978, as in terms of cinema the genre has only featured broadly in cinemas since the late 1970s. In relation to literature, the Superhero genre has always maintained a cult following, facilitated to a significant degree by DC Comics and Marvel.

Many Superhero films in the 1970s and 1980s benefited from the developing popularity of the Fantasy genre, and the commercial success of Science Fiction films, like Star Wars (1977). The films also explore notions of hybridity crossing over with Action, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Children’s animated films, Comedy and to a lesser extent, Horror. Below is an extensive, although not exhaustive list of key texts:


Superman (1978)
Superman II (1980)
Swamp Thing (1982)
Superman III (1983)
Supergirl (1984)
The Toxic Avenger (1985)
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Batman (1989)
Dick Tracey (1990)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Darkman (1990)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991)
Batman Returns (1992)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993)
Batman Forever (1995)
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)
X-Men (2000)
Unbreakable (2000)
Spider-Man (2002)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Hulk (2003)
X-Men 2 (2003)
Catwoman (2004)
The Incredibles (2004)
Spider-Man II (2004)
Hellboy (2004)
Batman Begins (2005)
Fantastic Four (2005)
Superman Returns (2006)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Hancock (2008)
Watchmen (2009)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Kick-Ass (2010)
The Green Hornet (2011)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Green Lantern (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Codes and Conventions

Wide distribution, but still retaining a cult following
Genre marketing involving use of similarity and difference to attract fans – the genre template will often be standardised, but with Unique Selling Points (USPs) and Emotional Selling Points (ESPs)
Star Marketing is common, but not crucial, for the genre
High production values
Extensive use of CGI, animation and Special Effects
Elaborate costume design – most Superheroes will have their own distinctive costume and recognisable motif
Mainly studio filming in conjunction with the latest special effects and make up technology – built sets, if used, will be sophisticated
Multiple camera technology
Primary target audience – young, male, 12-18 mainstreamers, but also a Secondary target audience of older males, 35-55 with significant cultural capital (who are often fans of Superhero literature)
Key audience appeals – aspiration and escapism
Exploration of narrative themes often reflecting audience fears (society and personal) with moral resolution common in terms of outcome (reassuring the audience) – Superheroes tend to have a strong moral code
Binary oppositions of good versus evil
Ability to apply Vladimir Propp’s 8 character roles e.g. Hero, Villain and False Hero
Notions of narrative predictability following a single stranded, classic Hollywood three act structure
Use of flashback (asynchronous narrative) but mainly linear in structure
Significant narrative action codes, but enigmas used to encode mystery and suspense
Sequels and prequels common targeting a dedicated fan base – for niche audiences a new release is often marketed as an Event Movie (foregrounding the date of release) with narrative arcs used to link the films together
Use of narrative sub plots and personal identification and understanding (in relation to audience foreknowledge) that the Superhero will have a weakness that is exploited by the antagonist
Most Superheroes will have an operating centre, base or lair from which they conduct their business and work
Notions of self sacrifice and duty are common – often Superhero films involve ‘saving’ a city or saving groups of people from terror. The Superhero will often put the ‘greater good’ above his or her own personal gain
All Superhero films involve characters (not just the Superhero) with extraordinary powers
Superhero films often involve characters with a secret identity (again, this often also applies to the villain or antagonist)
Literature is often the basis for the narrative and characters (both from Comics, Graphic Novels and Novels)
If borrowed from literature, Superhero films often remain faithful to the characteristics created by the writers and also the costume design of the Superhero
Villains often recur through the films (if a sequel or franchise) to ensure narrative continuity
Often ‘bad’ characters become ‘good’ characters but less often the reverse – characters who are ‘bad’ are often explained so as a result of a tragedy or incident from their past.
Superheroes themselves often have a difficult, problematical background and this is given as one of the reasons why they want to ‘give something back’ to society
Although the central character in Superhero films often has independent wealth, he or she will often want to share that wealth and he/she is seen as a role model for young children or teenagers
Many Superheroes are young themselves, making it easier for audience identification, and also have an ‘adult mentor’ to help them ‘do the right thing’. There is normally one special place, or one person, to turn to when a Superhero is in trouble
As well as a weakness, the Superhero is often represented as having personality flaws in relation to their alter ego, whom find it difficult to mix socially and communicate like ‘normal people’
Although female Superheroes are not uncommon, the genre has a male skew with female characters often used for romantic interest. Female villains are often sexualised for the male gaze.


2 Responses to Superhero films

  1. Langston Williams says:

    Who is the author of this? I’d like to cite it in a paper?

  2. Pingback: How far and why have gender roles in superhero movies changed? – Aneekha.K

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